Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Nifty video of some of nature's most prolific pollinators

The video linked was shown at a TED conference. TED is an organization that highlights a number of different things, mostly of a scientific nature but also often of philisophical or humanitarian view points.

Louis Scwhartzberg put together an film called "The Wings of Life" (click here to view the full video and read the attached blog from http://www.ted.com/). As I watched a shot of a field covered in hundreds and thousands of monarch butterflies, I realized how fragile our hold on this earth is. While we think we have a lot of control and that everything will be fine moving forward, we ignore that we pump a large number of poisons into our bodies and thus our environment. Did you know that benzoyl peroxide is used to bleach flour? I can't "diss" the chemical too much as it's the only thing that does a decent job keeping my acne under control, yet I still ponder what a chemical that is related to jet fuel does to our bodies, especially as a food processing additive. We know for sure that it strips flour of most nutrients, otherwise we wouldn't need it to be "enriched" with vitamins and minerals.

In about two months the annual almond pollination season begins. Roughly three quarters of the commercial bee hives in the U.S. will be trucked down to California. The bees will be forced to live off of almond pollen and nectar solely (imagine eating only one thing day in and day out - not a good way to get all the nutrients your body needs). The will be crowded in together with hundreds of other hives in cramped quarters (tenement living seems to be a good metaphor). The bees will spread different diseases and mites to each other (bees are social animals and will happily allow any bee that comes to its hive entrance if it has a gullett fully loaded with nectar). Various pesticides are used to control the mites. Various antibiotics are used to treat the diseases.

The mites and diseases get stronger and the bees get weaker.

The stress of the forced migration to California and then on to the rest of country as the beekeepers follow the honey makes the bees even weaker. Without getting overly anthropomorphic, I think we can a leap to say the same thing about us. As we pump more and more and chemicals into our own bodies and eat more and more corn-based products (high-fructose corn syrup being a leading contender but also from the beef, chicken and pork we eat that eat the all the industrial grade corn being grown) the weaker we will become and the more resistant and stronger the diseases will become.

Colony collapse disorder came to the bees, what will come to us?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Trust your gut

As a writer-kinda-guy, I follow many of the quirks that writers tend to follow. One of these quirks is when I would rather be writing I find myself in a position where I can't (like I'm at work on the phone with someone I would rather not be talking to). Or, when I could be writing, I find myself distracting myself from writing (like right now I have YouTube videos of a band I loved as a teen going and there's this really cool song from one of their later albums that I managed to never hear...or I'm watching one of the few WV shows I feel is worth watching or I'm finding chores to do (crazy, huh?)). To be honest about the blog and dodging writing anything in it is that we've had a hard season with the bees and I really haven't felt like writing about the tragedy of this year.

Though that is a very doom and gloom look at the year and really isn't true. Read on about the 2011 bee season and the lesson John and I learned: trust your gut feelings.

Things looked promising at the beginning of the year. The two hives we had looked like they had gotten through the winter very well and we had found a new home that went in line with our philosophies about organic agriculture at Katy's farm in Strasburg just a marathon's run from my place in Aurora. The first couple of visits looked very promising for a very good year. Then it looked like we caught another cool break and would be on par for tripling our hives: we had plans of splitting the Italians and Sicilians and we had caught several swarms (having no idea that each of them were likely from the same hive and kicking out virgin queens; something that may be a problem next year if that particular trait is not removed through the drones said queens mated with). But the weather that made catching our first swarm so easy - lots of steady drizzling and unseasonally cool weather - would seem to spell the doom that has been the lot of this season.

Our first blow was discovering that the Sicilians swarmed off withouth leaving a replacement queen. So instead of having two splits and 2 feral hives joining them, we split the Italians and merged the last virgin queen swarm with the remaining Sicilians. Again, to be honest we were not entirely unhappy at getting rid of the Sicilians through nature's rhythms, just surprised. We really didn't like them and I think we would have gassed them or some other evil thing if they hadn't been such good producers. Hmmmm...as a complete aside, we had often joked that they were Africanized a bit since they were so easy to upset and tended to follow you long distances when aroused. I just realized that one of the other major traits for Africanized honey bees (often misnamed as the killer bees) is they swarm off quite readily. There's a good chance that the original queen spent time in California as it's difficult to raise nucs and queens in Colorado that will be ready for the April/May demand. My thought on that is "Crap." The nice thing about Colorado is that it's too cold for the typical Africanized colony. What if our limitations only make them stronger in the long run? More than likely, the Sicilians did have a touch of Mafia-like aggression, but it leaves me to wonder at the coincidence.

Anyway, back to the season at large. Our second blow I didn't recognize in time. Trivia question: what does it mean to have a bunch, and I mean dozens, of dead drones outside of a hive? At the time I saw them, I didn't know, but I figured it out nearly too late. The clue is in what drones are notoriously considered: couch potato sex maniacs looking for a handout and a good time before they die (hopefully dying right after they have a good time - unlike spiders, it's guaranteed that a male bee will die after inseminating a queen. Spiders can try to run). While this is an unfair characterization to some degree, because the drones only eat honey and don't help to produce it, when the hive is low on stores their sisters are gonna let their bros die out in the cold.

Here's what I think happened: those spring rains that made it so easy to catch the first swarm also seem to have damned the spring and summer flowers out in Strasburg. Too few flowers bloomed to support the three hives we had and the two or three Katy and the other beekeeper had. In my last post I mentioned my concer. The situation just kept getting worse for them until we moved them back to Aurora. At this point I would like to send out a big "THANK YOU!" to our friends Holly & Andy McGraw (who took in one of the Italian splits) and Dee Dee & Alan Curry (who took in the ferals) for taking a hive each.

Had I trusted my gut, I would have brought them back to Aurora much sooner. Instead I kept thinking that something has to bloom soon. It just has to. Evidently it did, too. Right after we moved the hives back to Aurora Katy let John know that her last hive was suddenly bursting with bees and honey. John is figuring we should have just waited. I prefer to have delusions of charity and believe that moving our girls off left enough food for Katy's. And I'm sticking to that.

So we got them back and inspected them 2 weeks later. Lo and behold, the ferals appeared queenless. No new eggs were present and the brood was at least a couple of weeks old. So I had to find another queen. Which I did from Kentner Farms out in Lakewood.I ran the queen over to the Curry's to get her installed. And, alas, there were tons and tons of brand new eggs. How comic, eh? Another gut instinct that I ignored was to check the hive again to be sure the obviously present queen wasn't just laying off the laying until better crops became available.

The last bit of tragedy came during yesterday's inspection. We placed the other Italian split in John's yard (home again, home again!). We figured we would be rejoining them with their sisters at the McGraw's, but it was too late. It's quite depressing to see several tiny bee bottoms sticking out of their mausoleum-like cells, now dead in a permanent record of their last attempts to survive. We went over to check their sisters expecting the same funereal scene. Instead we were greeted with what appeared to be a vibrant colony. Note: I said appeared.

Having pessimistically left our equipment at John's, we scurried back to get it with a smile on our face. As we prepared to crack open the hive to the hope that they were thriving, I really started watching what was going on. This is a gut thing that I did pay attention to. I noticed that a lot of the activity was focused at the back corner of the hive: quite odd. And a bunch of bees kept flying underneath the hive: odder still. Then I noticed a fight at the front entrance: oddity solved. Our girls were being robbed!

I had John feed both Italian splits earlier in the week or the week before - can't quite remember when as I couldn't stick around to help with it. Using the standard 1:1 sugar water solution that I prepared, John had gone ahead and placed them. With the dead split, I was not surprised that the gallon jar was completely empty as dead bees can't defend a hive. The unusual behavior with the other split leads me to believe that the raiding bees found some spilt sugar water under the hive adn had started a bee line for that. Another smart move we made was to place an entrance reducer on both hives. This made the security of the hive much easier for the Italians as any good commander knows that it's much easier to guard a narrow passageway than a wide open field.

Had we trusted John's gut, we might not have had to worry about robbing at all. Right now is a desparate time for all bees, not just ours. Every hive has to make sure they have enough honey to get through the year and bees will exploit any opportunity they can. So after removing the feeding jar we threw a sheet over the hive to allow our girls to knock off the raiders that were left and give them time to regroup. John later looked for sugar underneath and couldn't find any. It's possible the raiders caught a whiff of the sugar and were intent on getting at it. And, with sudden horror, I just realized that if their hive has the bottom board I think they do, the screen I used is big enough for bees to get through! Crap: gotta go....

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Update on the hives

We've had a couple of really heavy rain storms the last few days - something of a blessing in semi-arid Colorado! The moisture will give a nice midseason boost to the flowers and that will surely help the bees.

I inspected our Strasburg hives this morning and they are coming along nicely. All three have small but strong populations and queens that are laying eggs. Plenty of brood in all stages from just hatched to capped and ready populate the frames. I am concerned that the only hive with decent honey stores is the feral's, but most of that came from the Sicilians that proceded them.

The newly queened Italian hive seems to be getting along nicely. I finally got around to some long overdue housecleaning in their hive. Here's an important lesson to any beekeeper: make sure you have the bee space right! Last year, rather than keeping on top of spacing, we just let them go to town on one of their deeps. Bad idea and I found out why at the end the season. They had built two sections of comb off of one frame. When I pulled that frame up for an inspection, a good bit of comb was left behind. Unfortunately, the comb was loaded with brood, so we couldn't rightfully fix the problem then. I just set the frame back in and we basically had a ten-frame configuration going with nine frames. This year, they had switched that bit of comb (just a bit larger than a normal frame, actually) to honey storage. So I pulled up that comb and put in the upper deep so they wouldn't lose the little that they had. I heard of a trick that you can do with Langstroth frames and loose comb: rubber band it into a frame till the bees secure it more properly. Two things prevented me from doing this. First, no rubber bands. Second, it's kinda old, sad-looking comb. Since this was basically filler comb for badly spaced frames, I figure there's little loss.

The last thing I want to discuss with the Strasburg hives is attitude. Now that the Sicilians are gone (long live the Sicilians!), there's a bit of a difference in the atmosphere around their old hive. The feral hive that we replaced the swarmed-off Sicilians with are really easy to handle. I'd just about call them sedate they're so easy going.

As for the top bar hive in John's yard populated by the other bit of ferals we captured, they seem to be rocking it. And here's another lesson on bee space...maybe it's a theme for this post. In constructing the TBH I missed one incredibly important thing: a bit of wood to start the proper spacing in the front of the hive. Marty Hardison calls this a cleat and it would have helped an accidental harvest. About a week ago John and I did a quick inspection and I discovered my mistake even more quickly. The bees had built the comb for each frame to the front of each frame rather than off the lead. Live and learn, they say.

Unfortunately, this caused them to attach some of the combs to the frame forward of the main frame, thus weakening the connection to the frame. The only way to really correct this problem is cutting off the comb and making them start over. Well, with one of the frames, that's exactly what they'll have to do. As I was lifting the frame, the top half filled with honey and the bottom with brood, it collapsed on me. John's comment: "This is possibly the worst inspection I have ever seen you do, Bob."

This is actually the third time that a frame has fallen apart on me. Last year's collapse was a honey comb. The first one from this year was also a honey comb with some brood that I was able to secure in the upper deep of the Italians with the original queen. Last year's and this latest one turned into accidental harvests. With this year's, I placed the comb that had brood on it toward the back of the hive to encourage the workers to go that way and to make sure they didn't lose any of the work force. I must mention, despite my messy manhandling of their home, they also appear quite easy to handle, though more energetic than their Strasburg sisters.

I must say that the honey from the TBH is mighty tasty! It's a semi-opaque orange-amber color with a touch of cloudiness from the pollen that also was stored in the comb. The honey is sweet, but not overpoweringly so, and has a lovely citrus touch to it. There's good flavor in this part of the season's flowers!

When we did the first inspection, we knew that the hive would be exploding with bees soon as the queen is a prolific layer and much of the brood present was capped. I took a peak at them yesterday and, yep, their population has exploded. The comb that I placed in the back is all hatched and cleared of brood. Now the girls are using it to store honey. Waste not...